- Sitting in DifferenceQueering the Study of Islam
agency, difference, Islamic feminism, queer theology, vulnerability
Queering the study of religion and theology as a means of teaching and learning through the twin lenses of difference and sexuality is both a theoretical and a political project. "Sitting" is the metaphoric posture through which I understand what it means to teach and learn about difference as a political project. Drawing upon previous work where I discuss the tension between the tendency to blow up the space between our differences so that they are irreconcilable and the equally instinctive impulse to reduce that space to a sort of nothingness that views us all as the same, I propose instead that we "sit" with difference without succumbing to the instinctive need to resolve or do something about it and that we consider instead how "sitting" may also be active and agential.1 The character of this space, which is where one is simultaneously knowing and not knowing and doing and not doing, is vulnerability; it is to inhabit a performance outside of the norms of knowing, certainty, doing, and resistance.
For Judith Butler, the political subject vanquishes vulnerability through agency; along similar lines to Butler's further argument, the exposure that accompanies vulnerability is, I argue, also agential for the ways in which it opens the subject to possibility, to shift, to change, and importantly, to further vulnerability. Sitting is a posture of residing; it is placing oneself in a location without overt movement, response, or resistance except for the movements that bring the self to the vulnerability of their sitting position and [End Page 149] the movements that will again prompt the self to other vulnerable sittings. Opposed to mastery, vulnerability, Butler explains, "is a kind of relationship that belongs to that ambiguous region in which receptivity and responsiveness are not clearly separable from one another, and not distinguished as separate moments in a sequence."2 Reflecting upon my pedagogic philosophy teaching in a master's program on Gender, Religion, and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, I found value in the vulnerability of "sitting" with difference. There were two ways in which my teaching operated to queer the teaching of religion in my context; the first was through the lens of religious difference. This entailed the introduction of a nonnormative area of study, namely Islam, in a space historically reserved for the study of Christianity and also resistant to the comprehensive inclusion of Islam. It included the introduction of feminist theory in the study of Islam into a space still adjusting to the arrival of feminist theory in the study of Christian theology; thus, I was queering the study of Christianity through the study of Islam and queering the study of Christian feminism through the study of Muslim feminism. The second was through the lens of sexual difference: using queer as a reference to alternative or nonconforming sexual identity. This pertains to introducing the study of sexuality and sexual difference to the study of Islam, which until then had been studied on an alternative campus and primarily in a heteronormative, historical, and sociological framework. Thus, I was queering the study of Islam through the study of alternative sexualities. From a global perspective, the initial challenge was in teaching Islam against Islamophobia and locating the role of feminist solidarity in that context; the subsequent challenge is in teaching sexual diversity against sexual normativity and homophobia in its general sense.
In terms of introducing the study of sexuality within Islam in a space exclusive to Christian theology, I can best explain this as the politics of exposing dirty laundry. In the context of a global politics that has already positioned Islam as the location of gender- and sex-based inequalities, the critical study of these inequalities in a space historically and presently preserved for the study of Christianity becomes a hyper-political task. Therefore, for Muslim students, the critical study of gender and sexuality in Islam necessarily brought about an encounter with the politics of Islamophobia. So, I was not surprised when the first time I taught the core module one student shared her discomfort...